Chiam Potok, Jewish rabbi and author of The Chosen, wrestled with the deeply held belief that we’re God’s chosen people. He said the problem is that we become a “self-choosing people.” It becomes easy to forget that, as the spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah, we’re called to bless and serve the whole world. It often gets ugly. Such a religious self-understanding becomes especially dangerous when it’s linked with the ethos and ambitions of a nation-state.
Examples litter human history. Here, we will look at it through our American experience. Our national identity is born out of the revolutionary struggle for independence; we have a deeply held historical conception of our nation as a republic opposed to British tyranny and colonialism. Another strand of our American identity is rooted in the religious faith of the first settlers who saw themselves as God’s chosen people in a new world.
The notion of being a people chosen by God has injected an intense religious quality into American nationalism sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It operates even more effectively because it is defined as secular in American liberal ideology rather than being identified with a particular religion. We try to have it both ways as seen in the notion of being a secular nation with the soul of a church.
Its most destructive features have been our pervasive militarism and aspects of our corporate economy that exploit individuals and local communities both in our country and globally. The sheer size and dominance of American military and economic power skews international relationships and threatens to undermine our democratic institutions. On the other hand, our sense of being a people of God has also informed our national social conscience and related social movements in the struggle for civil rights, freedom, economic justice, and peace. Activists like singer, songwriter Pete Seeger have tapped into this more life-giving aspect of American nationalism.